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Basketball star shares unique path to Brown

Hunsaker ‘20 finds road to D1 basketball through Mozambique, junior college in Utah

It took approximately five seconds, 15 steps and one perfectly timed floater for Zach Hunsaker ’20 to become something of a celebrity on College Hill.

The recognition for the newcomer who drained a buzzer beater to take down Dartmouth last season stretched from the Pizzitola Sports Center all the way to ESPN, where the highlight landed at No. 3 on SportsCenter’s Top 10 Plays. Though the full-court sprint, successful shot and subsequent celebration all happened in less than a minute, the lead up to the bucket that sent the Big Green packing stretches back almost six years.

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In 2013, Hunsaker had plans to play for an Ivy League team that liked what they saw during his high school years. He had heard little about the school growing up, “just because, in Utah, no one ever talks about (the Ivy League),” he said. But with no other offers on the table, he decided to continue his basketball career there. But first, Hunsaker decided he would go on a two-year religious mission trip to Mozambique, where his access to basketball was limited to the one he carried onto the plane. The decision to put college on hold following his high school graduation was an easy one. As a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Hunsaker had always planned to accept an assignment that could send him across the globe. A plan was in place — he would play college basketball upon returning from Africa. But by 2016, after returning from his mission, the 21-year-old 6’2’’ guard was sitting at home in North Salt Lake, Utah without a single Division I offer.

While in Mozambique, Hunsaker had a change of heart and realized he did not want to spend his collegiate years away from home. His father was the head coach of the Utah Valley University men’s basketball team at the time, and Hunsaker’s older brother had been a four-year starter on the team. Playing for his dad in the same town where he went to high school checked every box and solved every problem. Orem, Utah was the obvious answer for him.

Since there is limited internet access in Mozambique and only two occasions that warranted phone calls home – Christmas and Mother’s Day – most of Hunsaker’s attention went toward the mission. He wore a white shirt and dark necktie every day, picked up conversational Portuguese by speaking with locals and practiced dribbling drills whenever he cold find some free time and a piece of concrete.

Six months before his mission ended, he received an email that diverted his future again. His father had retired from coaching. There was no back up plan.

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The strategy of using junior college as an alternate route into Division I athletics went largely unnoticed until Netflix started capturing the trend in its award-winning docuseries “Last Chance U.” Unlike some players featured in the series, who enrolled in JuCo for disciplinary reasons, Hunsaker decided to attend JuCo after receiving news of his father’s retirement. In August 2016, he enrolled in Snow College in Ephraim, Utah as a possible route to D-I basketball.

In Ephraim, most attractions for students are situated along the central road, US-Route 89. In this environment, with little else to occupy his attention, Hunsaker spent most of his time on the court. Once he got back into the groove of playing, his game was near flawless. He helped Snow to a Scenic West Athletic Conference Championship and led the SWAC in average points per game, free throw percentage, three pointers and total points scored with 613  — 174 more than the player who finished second.

Snow’s head coach and Athletic Director Rob Nielson remembers Hunsaker as not only “the best player” but “the best teammate.”

“Off the court, in everything he does, it’s pretty obvious that he’s a little bit different than most of the guys, so it’s pretty easy to see that he’s a leader. People … are drawn to him,” Nielson said of the comeback kid who would go on to receive NJCAA Division I First Team All-American honors and be named Region 18 Player of the Year. 

It didn’t take long for D-I schools to realize what they had passed on years before. Coaches from across the country called, texted, emailed and sent letters trying to sway Hunsaker toward their programs. “It was a lot, fast,” Hunsaker’s father recalls. “You’re looking at a guy that couldn’t find a Division I scholarship” to having offers from over 50 programs. Everyone from Penn State University to Texas Tech University to Columbia  wanted Snow’s leading scorer on their team.

Mike Martin ’04, head coach of the men’s basketball team at Brown, remembers joining the frenzy a bit late. He had heard about Hunsaker from a friend while recruiting down South and reached out as soon as assistant coaches confirmed Zach could be “a great fit.”

“Everything was attractive to us,” Martin said. “His maturity, his focus, obviously his talent. … He’s just a young man of really high character, too. The more we found out about him, the more excited we got about potentially adding him to our program.”

And then, the ball was in Hunsaker’s court. He narrowed his choices down to three: Penn State, Indiana State University and Brown. Each had their own pros. Penn State boasted impressive facilities, a strong program and Big Ten Conference membership. Indiana State held sentimental value, as it is located a few hours from where he was born. Brown offered the best of both worlds, since it allowed him to play basketball in the 10th best conference in the country while getting an Ivy League degree.

The choice came down to some advice from his dad, encouragement from neighbors and a visit to Providence. “It felt right,” Hunsaker said of his final decision with a smile and a slight shrug. A few months later in September 2017, he was officially a Brown Bear.

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Now, a year and a half into his time at Brown, Hunsaker has found a rhythm. He has caught up with the Bears’ high speed play, continued to perfect his Portuguese and secured a summer internship with Goldman Sachs. His days as the new kid on the team are over, but they did not last long in the first place. A month and a half after claiming a locker, Hunsaker’s teammates already considered him a leader. “He was a captain as a sophomore, which is actually unheard of,” said friend and teammate Travis Fuller ’19. “You will never see that, ever. A transfer from JuCo to an Ivy League sophomore, just joining the team (and) becoming our captain. … That shows you what kind of guy Zach is.”

Fuller jokes that Hunsaker is so humble he would downplay winning an NBA Championship by simply saying, “Oh, I did well in basketball,” but Coach Martin attributes the team’s respect for Hunsaker to that modesty and similar strong values.

“You know what you’re getting from Zach,” Martin said. “As a coach, I can’t give a bigger compliment. You know you’re gonna get his full attention, great attitude, energy and great effort all the time. … He’s always someone you can rely on and you can count on.”

The Bears will be counting on Hunsaker as they head into the final six conference games of the regular season, but a certain Ivy opponent will have their eyes on the guard they first encountered back in 2013.

When Hunsaker’s shot dropped through the net just as the buzzer sounded last season, it was more than just a game-winner over a conference foe. It was a response to the last exchange he had with Dartmouth after returning from Mozambique. “They basically told me they didn’t want me anymore,” he remembers. With the teams slated to meet on the court Saturday, they likely will not want him on the opposing team.

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